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Inside the shadow campaigns trying to influence Trump’s VP search

<i>Carlos Osorio/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>As former President Donald Trump narrows his focus on a handful of potential running mates
Carlos Osorio/AP via CNN Newsource
As former President Donald Trump narrows his focus on a handful of potential running mates

By Alayna Treene, Steve Contorno, Kayla Tausche and Daniel Strauss, CNN

(CNN) — As former President Donald Trump narrows his focus on a handful of potential running mates, the behind-the-scenes lobbying among close advisers and donors has intensified with sharp divisions emerging over who is best suited to join the ticket.

In every corner of Trump’s orbit – from his family and conservative media figures to former advisers and donors – people are trying to get in the president’s ear before he finalizes a pick, several people close to the former president tell CNN.

His oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has made his affinity for Sen. J.D. Vance well known, hosting the Ohio Republican on his web show and pushing him in conversations with his father. Rupert Murdoch has urged Trumpworld to consider North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum while showering the little-known Republican with friendly coverage in the conservative mogul’s media empire.

Meanwhile, one of Murdoch’s stars, Fox News host Sean Hannity, has gone to bat for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, arguing the son of Cuban immigrants could help Trump with Latino voters in key battlegrounds.

The shadow campaigning in the veepstakes has become increasingly urgent. There is less than a month until the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee — the deadline Trump has set to announce his nominee for vice president — and internal conversations regarding who the former president will ultimately pick have entered a new phase. Vetting of the candidates has commenced, advisers have built pros and cons lists and Trump himself has taken on a more serious and earnest approach to determining who he envisions is best fit to serve alongside him, Trump’s advisers and people close to the former president say.

Trump’s campaign insists the former president is his own best adviser and he alone will make the call. His shortlist remains in flux, his advisers caution, noting that the former president is liable to change his mind until the moment he formally announces his pick.

While Vance, Burgum and Rubio are currently considered the three leading choices, other Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, House GOP conference Chair Elise Stefanik, Florida Rep. Byron Donalds and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson have all received various levels of vetting paperwork and are still under some consideration.

One senior Trump adviser put it this way: “Their standing really depends on the day, who he speaks with and who he sees on TV.”

One bundler for the former president suggested Trump is least likely to listen to people who have a clear bias.

Indeed, Trump’s top lieutenants, including campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, have made it a point not to weigh in, multiple people told CNN.

“When Trump asks people their opinion, those folks campaigning for someone, he tunes them out,” the bundler said. “If he cares about and respects your opinion, he will ask you.”

A person close to Trump added that Wiles in particular is wary of pushing for a single candidate — noting that her posturing has set the tone for the team.

“Susie has lasted this long because she provides information that will be helpful, and then lets Trump make the decision,” the person said.

A senior Trump adviser insisted, “Nobody in this campaign is lobbying or pushing anyone above anyone else.”

“The president’s been very clear about the primary focus of his choice being a person that he believes would have a great eight years of service after his next four year term,” the adviser added.

Dinner party straw poll win for Rubio

At a dinner in New York City following his felony conviction, Trump canvassed some two dozen Wall Street financiers and high-dollar donors to get their views on who he should pick, according to two attendees.

As he went one-by-one around the rectangular table, no clear consensus emerged. Trump scowled when one attendee suggested Trump pick his onetime Cabinet member and recent primary challenger, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. The crowd was perplexed when another suggested a write-in candidate with no name recognition from academia.

Vance and Burgum, according to attendees, received a few mentions. And at least two attendees supported Scott.

Rubio received the most votes in the informal straw poll, with many backers citing a key reason: The 53-year-old’s ability to assume the office of the presidency if something were to happen to their 78-year-old nominee. In Rubio, they said, Trump would also get a seasoned lawmaker with the ability to bolster the former president’s Latino support — especially in Nevada, where the senator once lived — and provide his administration a bit of polish.

Besides Hannity and Trump’s dinner company, Rubio has another influential figure in his corner: Kellyanne Conway.

Trump’s former 2016 campaign manager played a key role in the selection of then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence eight years ago and she continues to advise the campaign on issues relating to abortion policy and debate preparations.

Conway and Trump have met regularly over dinners on the patio at Mar-a-Lago over the past year, conversations in which Conway has made her case for Rubio to be considered a top contender, multiple sources familiar with the talks said.

Hannity did not respond to a request for comment. Though Conway declined to affirm her preference for Rubio, she told CNN that Trump should pick someone “who can help him win, help him govern, who can be ready on day one.”

She has also taken her arguments more public. For months, Conway has been outwardly arguing for Trump to consider a running mate who could help him make gains with non-White voters. In an April interview with The Washington Post, she said, “if he has a Marco Rubio or a Byron Donalds, a Ben Carson, certainly a Tim Scott on the ticket, that could obviously help in what is already happening, which is a migration away from the Democratic Party by some of its core constituents over to President Trump in some of the major polls.”

Conway also mentioned Rubio three times in a February op-ed for The New York Times pontificating on Trump’s selection process. She namechecked Donalds and Scott in that piece as well. Conway has also privately told Trump and other members of his inner circle that she thinks Scott would make a good VP, but those close to Trump argue she touts Rubio more frequently.

Scott on Wednesday held a summit in Washington featuring Conway along with wealthy donors such as Marc Andreessen, Brian Hook and Bill Ackman — though not all of them are pushing Scott as VP. One of the donors, hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, recently said he was “going to wait to see who (Trump) picks as his VP candidate” before deciding whether to contribute to the former president’s third White House bid – yet another example of how key voices are trying to influence the decision.

Griffin, who owns a home in South Florida and in recent years relocated his firm Citadel to Miami, backed Rubio’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid. A vocal Trump skeptic, he gave $5 million to super PACs backing Haley this cycle, before she exited the race.

From ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ to far-right favorite

While Rubio may have support within the donor class, influential voices among Trump’s far-right base have gravitated toward Vance.

The freshman senator is a regular on the War Room podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser headed to prison next month for contempt of Congress. Bannon in an interview with Politico earlier this year said Vance and his political operation were at the “nerve center” of Trump’s movement and suggested the “Hillbilly Elegy” author could be the St. Paul to Trump’s Jesus.

“You know, Jesus played the small rooms until St. Paul came around,” Bannon told the outlet. “It took the zeal of St. Paul to turn Jesus into a headliner.”

Bannon has also been a fierce defender of Vance behind the scenes, and confirmed to CNN that he has privately pushed Vance to Trump’s allies.

Trump Jr., who helped to rally support around Vance’s Senate bid in 2022 during a contested GOP primary, has made clear his preference for his father’s running mate.

“I’d love to see a J.D. Vance,” Trump Jr. told Newsmax in January. “You actually need a fighter.”

Tucker Carlson, the exiled Fox News commentator who now hosts his own podcast, has privately urged Trump to consider Vance as well, two sources familiar with the conversations told CNN.

In an interview with Politico, Carlson, a close friend of Trump Jr., called Vance “by far the smartest and the deepest of any (senator) I’ve ever met.” Attempts by CNN to reach Carlson were unsuccessful.

The lesser known governor

To the surprise of some, Burgum remains in the mix, though many Trump allies often remark it’s clear the wealthy North Dakota governor looks the part. Trump once bluntly referred to Pence as “straight out of central casting” — and it appears Burgum has that going for him this time.

He also has benefited from a wave of positive publicity from Murdoch’s news empire, which has heaped praise on the former businessman-turned-red state executive. Burgum ran a software company and a real estate development firm in his home state of North Dakota. His wealth from his private sector success helped bankroll his failed campaign for the Republican nomination against Trump this cycle.

A June New York Post editorial ran with the headline “Gov. Doug Burgum is Trump’s best choice for VP, but Sen. Marco Rubio’s a strong runner-up.” In May, the Wall Street Journal editorial board argued for Trump to consider a few “outside-the-Beltway” options. Burgum, the board wrote, “would be an adult in White House councils.”

“He was a success as an entrepreneur and understands markets and global economic competition,” the piece went on. “He’s not flashy but Mr. Trump needs mature.”

Murdoch’s News Corp did not respond to a request for comment.

Though hailing from a small state and largely unknown, Burgum is considered by some in Trump’s orbit as someone who can’t hurt the ticket. That’s a key concern of Trump’s top advisers who have otherwise let the former president dictate the process.

“He should have somebody who’s not a distraction or subtraction and he doesn’t need to be defending the statements of other people,” Conway said. “President Trump should not be made to explain other people’s scandals or statements.”

Burgum’s wealth may have worked in his favor for a time when Trump trailed President Joe Biden in the money wars. But the recent influx of cash into the campaign following Trump’s fundraising blitz and criminal convictions has blunted that advantage.

“The campaign is exceptionally well-funded,” the bundler said. “We don’t need a sugar daddy.”

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